Shivaratri or Shivachaturdashi is one of the important Hindu festivals. It falls on the 14th night of the new moon during the dark half of the Bengali month of Phalguna. Sanatan Hindu scriptures contain many stories and legends describing the origin of this occasion.
According to Puranas during the churning of the cosmic ocean called Samudra Manthan, a pot of poison along with many other things emerged from the ocean. When poison emerged, neither the deities nor the demons made any claim for it. It was so venomous that the whole world started getting inflamed by it. To save the world Shiva then drank it but held it in throat instead of assuming it. This made His throat blue and since then He is called Neelkantha (the blue throated one). Many think that Shivaratri is the celebration of this Puranic event.
According to another legend of the Shiva Purana, two of the triads Brahma and Vishnu were having a dispute. Both of them were fighting for supremacy. Witnessing the fight, other gods requested Shiva to intervene. Shiva then assumed the form of a flaming Linga and challenged the quarreling two Gods to find the beginning and the end of it. The magnitude of the Linga scared two Lords. However, they decided to find an end of it each. Lord Brahma took the form of a swan and went upwards and Lord Vishnu as Varah and went into the earth. But the Linga had no limit. On His way upwards Brahma came across a Ketaki flower. Asked where she (Ketaki) had come from, the flower replied that she had been placed at the top of the flaming Linga. Unable to reach the upper end, Brahma decided to stop His search and take the flower as a witness of His success. Enraged by Brahma’s false claim Shiva cursed Him that no one would ever pray to Him. He also punished Ketaki by declaring it to be unfit as an offering for worship. As it was on the 14th day in the dark fortnight of the month of Phalguna that Shiva manifested himself in the form of Linga, the day is extremely auspicious to His devotees and is celebrated as Mahashivaratri – a grand gala night of the worship of Shiva.
A question arises always – why do the devotees keep night-long vigil on the Mahashivaratri? It is explained through a popular and well-known story. Once there was a poor hunter named Suswara in Varanasi. Oneday he could not return home from forest before nightfall. The forest was infested with many ferocious animals. Unable to find his way back, he climbed a tree to save himself from the wild animals but he was afraid he would doze and fall from the tree. So, to stay awake he decided to pluck a leaf from the tree and drop it chanting the name of Shiva. At dawn he realized that he dropped leaves on to Shiva Linga and the tree he plucked leaves from was a vilva (wood apple) tree. That night happened to be Shivaratri. So, by the grace of God, Suswara, a true devotee, unknowingly kept a night-long vigil and worshipped Shiva.
Generally Shivaratri is considered especially auspicious for women. Common people think that married women pray to Shiva for the wellbeing of their family while unmarried women pray for an ideal husband. But I think this festival is auspicious for everyone. I also think everyone who prays to Him can be freed for all earthly sins.
Shiva is the supreme Consciousness that illuminates all types of darkness in us. Keeping awake or vigil on the grand night of Shivaratri is symbolic to a devotee of Shiva. It is one kind of spiritual awareness that is needed for a devotee to reach the spiritual goal.